Dickens’ The Chimes at St John’s

Dickens' The Chimes at St John's

As a colleague and I walked to work on Tuesday complaining about our lot, we were both brought to silence as we passed people sleeping rough at Westminster station. The complete contrast of life at 8am. There is something about this time of year, whilst festivities bring so much joy, yet there is the reality of the harsh elements, of expectations which can outweigh any optimism.

And so on Wednesday, a visit to St John’s in Canton brought so much more perspective. The home for the Cardiff arm of a production which will shortly transfer to St John’s in Waterloo. The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In is the second of Charles Dickens’ short Christmas books, most well positioned by reference to the first, A Christmas Carol. As with his other books, The Chimes has a strong social resonance, especially in this production where the parallels with today’s world are brought to the fore. 

Whilst The Chimes takes forward the themes of poverty and social injustice, it also takes on more complex considerations, suicide. And whilst we see consideration for mental health coming more to the fore, the link with homelessness could not be more felt through this production.The Chimes 1 (photo credit Huw Talfryn Walters)The intriguing element of Judith Roberts’ production in partnership with Chapter Arts Centre, is that both in Cardiff and London the cast combines professional actors with an ensemble drawn from members of the community with experience of homelessness. In this there is a reality, this is not a production for the community. It is a production with the community, and therein its delivery is both successful and insightful.

In the sound design of Ian Barnard and the music of Conor Linehan the collision is intense. Bringing home the reality and beauty of voice and music enables the cast to unite their strength. The additional musical element is, of course, the chimes. Made by Nigel Shepherd they add the haunting element to the piece, the apparitions of this story brought further into distinction.The Chimes 3 (photo credit Huw Talfryn Walters)The actors, cast in a way which enabled the professional to take the weight of the story, but which ensured each character to be presented fully, meant that I did glance at the programme to ensure my distinctions were correct.

There was a strength in all actors. A conviction demonstrating how much had been spent on making the production a success. This was most importantly evident from within.

And, of course, there were vocal performances which carried the story forward. Whilst I initially fell for Lucy Benson Brown in the role of Meg, the focal point of Trotty’s apparitions, it was Olivia Rose Aaron’s Lillian conviction which remained with me. I am unsurprisingly choosing the female roles. I must admit in Dickins’ story it is the role and strength of women which intrigues me. 

In this production, the apparitions associated with Lillian and Meg equally stayed with me. But this is no reflection of the male counterparts. The strength across the roles enabled each character to be explored. The power of voice created the conviction in not only the apparition but for the story to unfold.

And of the ensemble – Ozzy Aldridge, Gabriel, Anthony Prosser, Mo Sullivan and John Vasey- words seem too little. The performance felt integrated, so I cannot imagine how much strength that would have taken. It may be a dream of so many to perform, but to stand – in traverse- and create a role. This commands respect.

I have to admit I’m not sure how I left the performance. The story held, the performances offered conviction, and the musicality created enjoyment. And yet. There is a reality that a story about poverty, social injustice and mental health. That this should have the same immediacy in 2017 as it did in 1844 sits more than a little uncomfortably.

There is however a sense that talking aloud can only ever improve a situation. And for that I would encourage anyone to take in the production, and enjoy. It is enjoyable- and complemented by mulled wine and a mince-pie the Christmas element of The Chimes is felt.

I find myself looking at my diary to see I’m back in London next week, and I’m intrigued to see the London ensemble. I sense under Judith Roberts’ direction it will have as many highs, as reality.The Chimes 2 (photo credit Huw Talfryn Walters)The Chimes runs at St John’s, Canton (in conjunction with Chapter Arts Centre) until 16th December 2017 with tickets available via the website.

The production then transfers to St John’s, Waterloo, from the 19th – 30th December 2017 with tickets available via TicketSource.

Disclosure: I was invited to the performance for the purpose of this review. All opinions and words contained are my own.

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